Sunday, November 10, 2013

Remembrance and resurrection

Text: Luke 20 27-38 (a question about resurrection)

In early November, we often spend time thinking of our ancestors. The calendar directs us to confront mortality and to remember the hope that sustains us in the face of the death of loved ones.

It starts on Halloween when we playfully confront our fears of death by dressing up as ghosts or zombies. All Hallows Eve is followed by All Hallows Day on November 1 when we remember the saints among our ancestors. The next day, November 2, is All Souls Day when we give thanks for everyone else who has come before us.

This time of reflection reaches its climax on November 11, Remembrance Day. King George V set aside November 11 in the British Empire in 1919. It marks the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918, which ended the horrors of World War I. Remembrance Day is a time to honour the sacrifice of the victims of the wars.

On this, the day before Remembrance Day, Jesus' remarks about resurrection in today's Gospel reading might help us as we mourn loved ones and ancestors, express thanks for their sacrifices, and look forward in hope.

Jesus is asked a question about a childless woman who had married seven brothers one after the other. The Sadducees ask which of the seven brothers will be her husband in resurrection. They do so to ridicule the idea of resurrection.

Jesus replies that there is no marriage in resurrection. Instead, he says we will be like angels, who presumably do not engage in carnal love, marriage, or family life.

His answer runs counter to some common hopes for resurrection. When a loved one dies, we yearn to share time with them again. If resurrection does not reunite us with our loved ones, then what is meant by resurrection?

I remember the reaction of my seven-year old nephew to my father's death six years ago. He drew a picture of my Dad in heaven gardening and painting -- two of my father's favourite activities. My nephew seemed to imagine that what follows death is pretty much the same as this life, except with fewer difficulties.

I quite understand this idea, although I no longer hold it. For instance, it is one thing to enjoy seeding, weeding, and harvesting for decades. It is another to contemplate thousands, or millions, or trillions of seasons of this. Even if there were no insects, endless seasons of gardening do not seem like a vision of paradise to me. So as with marriage, I don't imagine that there is gardening in heaven.

Of course, no one can say with certainty what happens after death. In our tradition, I see two different approaches. One argues that resurrection preserves one's sense of self forever. The other sees resurrection both as brief moments of relief from egotism in this life and selfless and eternal reunion with God's Love after death.

Today's remarks by Jesus fit with the latter understanding, I believe. Death is not a door through which life continues relatively unchanged. Death completes our liberation from the anxieties and attachments of our egos, which, with grace, we sometimes experience this side of the grave.

This approach lines up with my favourite quote from St. Paul. When describing his conversion to the Way of Jesus, Paul writes, "I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2). I also think it lines up with the Parable of the Prodigal Son in which the father twice says that his son was dead but now is now alive.

There are other passages in Scripture that suggest other ideas for what might happen to our sense of self at death. But today I leave those aside, and talk about some of the implications of Jesus' statement on marriage and resurrection.

The joys, pains, and entanglements of our egos are for this life. The ego is the site of our thoughts, memories, and willpower. Sometimes, with grace, our ego dissolves -- perhaps when reconciling with a friend; in the joy of the birth of a child; or when letting go of an addiction. In moments of grace, we sometimes rise above our ego and feel connected to all of life.

In my experience, such moments of healing are fleeting. But they give me a taste of what might happen at death. In this vision, death is a permanent liberation from the small self. It extends those moments of salvation experienced in this life into an eternal return to the Love that is God.

This is not to say that I don't cherish life. I adore the struggle to fulfill our desires and learn about this crazy world. Our instincts and emotions move us to care for our families and fight for justice. At the end, we are confident that we all return to Love.

When a young person dies -- as is so often the case in war -- the pain felt by survivors can be unbearable. However, none of this pain need be felt on behalf of the dead. They have entered into an eternal now in God's complete reality. For them, separation and pain are over and healing is complete.

The grief and pain is felt by those of us who survive. And some of the deepest pain must be felt by those who have had to kill in war.

My mother's father was a veteran of the First World War. After growing up on a farm near the shores of Lake Ontario, he moved to Vancouver to work for the YMCA. When Britain declared war on the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires in 1914, he signed up immediately and was wounded in France in 1915. He spent a year recovering in a hospital in England and did clerical work for the British Army during the last years of the War.

Like so many people, my grandfather had been filled with optimism in the years leading up to 1914. This summer, my mother showed me a photocopy of an essay he had written in Vancouver in 1911. In it, he looked back 50 years to before Confederation and forward 50 years to his hopes for the growth of Western Canada. The essay betrayed none of the darkness that would soon overwhelm the world in the trenches of Europe.

In the 1920s, my grandfather returned to Ontario, bought a farm, married and raised four children. But my mother said he never spoke of his time in France. Like so many others, he had seen the worst that life had to offer in the War and struggled to recover both physically and spiritually.

My grandfather, Mackenzie Rutherford, is one of those whom I remember each November 11th. I am sad that he had to suffer pain and disillusionment in the Great War. If he killed any enemy soldiers, I hope he was not wracked with guilt. I am happy that he found love and created a family. I am sure that he experienced many moments of healing in his life -- maybe even on the battlefield as he lay wounded. I am confident that, like his comrades and foes who died far too young in France, he found salvation when he died as an old man. Like all of our ancestors, I believe that he was relieved of the burdens of his ego when he returned to God.

Jesus says that in resurrection, there is no marriage. My interpretation of this saying is only one of many. But regardless of our notions, we have all experienced moments in which we rise above our small selves and are reminded of our connection to the Great Self of God.

Having faith that we are released from our attachments at death liberates me to try to live life to the fullest. In this life we won't avoid pain or disappointment. But many times we encounter the grace of God in Christ, which helps us see above our limited horizon to the cosmic whole. For me, it is these moments that point to the eternal life that is selfless Love.

Tomorrow as we remember the horror of war and the sacrifices of millions in Canada and around the world, may we be assured that the honoured dead are safe in the arms of God. With faith that all of us headed to that same salvation, let us fight fearlessly for a world of justice in which political differences will  no longer settled by war.

Thanks be to God.


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